Arab leaders have gathered in Saudi Arabia for a three-day emergency summit following attacks on Gulf oil assets this month which Riyadh pins on Tehran.
Thursday’s events come after Saudi Arabia accused Iran of ordering drone attacks on oil pumping stations in the kingdom, which were claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, and the sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A top United States’s security official said Iranian mines were “almost certainly” used in the tanker operation. Tehran denies any involvement.
Analysts said the emergency summit will be watched closely for whether or not the Saudis will endorse Qatar as a mediator in the dispute with Iran the same way the US has.
Earlier this month, Al Jazeera reported that Qatar’s foreign minister had held talks with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran, aiming to defuse the escalating tensions in the Gulf.
“Washington seems to have bet on Doha to de-escalate by opening back channels with Tehran. The question is whether Saudi and especially UAE can agree on Doha as a mediator,” Andreas Krieg from King’s College London told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that the Saudis contacted the emir of Qatar directly suggests that the tension with Iran is taken very seriously in Riyadh. So the kingdom is ready to build a broader-than-usual consensus on how to deal with Iran,” Krieg said.
Saudi King Salman invited Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country is home to the largest US military base in the region, to the Mecca summits.
Qatar said Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani would attend, the highest Qatari official to visit the kingdom since the rift.
Gulf states have a joint defence force under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but the 39-year-old alliance has been fractured by a dispute that has seen Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and non-GCC Egypt impose a political and economic boycott on Qatar since June 2017.
Iraq and Oman, which have good ties with Tehran and Washington, have also said they are working to reduce tensions in the region.
Tensions with Iran
Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf told a gathering of his counterparts in Jeddah ahead of the Mecca summits that the attacks on oil assets must be addressed with “strength and firmness”.
“While summit leaders are likely to discuss how best to avoid a war, King Salman is equally determined to defend Saudi and Arab interests amid increasing tensions between the US and Iran,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy, wrote in an opinion piece published by Al Arabiya.
He said the meetings of Sunni Muslim Gulf leaders and Arab leaders at midnight in Mecca would discuss Shia-majority Iran’s “interference” in Arab affairs.
Tensions have risen between the US and Iran after Washington pulled out of a multinational nuclear deal with Tehran, reimposed sanctions and boosted its military presence in the Gulf.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Wednesday that the attack near a UAE bunkering hub was connected to the attack on pumping stations on the kingdom’s East-West pipeline – both alternative oil shipping routes to the Strait of Hormuz – and a rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone.
“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind in Washington who is responsible for this and I think it’s important that the leadership in Iran know that we know,” he said of the operation against four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers.
An Iranian official dismissed Bolton’s remarks as “a ludicrous claim”. The Islamic Republic said it would defend itself against any military or economic aggression.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on a trip to Iraq this month that Tehran wanted balanced ties with their Gulf neighbours and had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.
One of the UAE’s main newspapers said in an editorial, which is usually state-approved, that the offer was “bizarre”. “No Mr Zarif. We are not buying your ‘nice neighbour’ routine,” said the front-page editorial in Gulf News daily.